This picture of a Regency rake contemplating his ruined fortunes hangs above my desk. It adequately conveys my feelings after I posted Q is for Queen’s Regiment which got worse each time I revised it. To the right of The Bitterness of Dawn I have an albumen portrait of Captain F H M Sitwell, aide de camp to General Outram during the Indian Mutiny, and (after the first relief) a fellow defender of Lucknow with L E Rees.
This photograph shows Sitwell in native dress carrying the pistol he lent to Thomas Henry Kavanagh who was the first civilian to be awarded the Victoria Cross. It was the one thing I kept from a large Indian Mutiny collection formed by my friend Peter Piercy and sold to me after his death by his widow. One of the books in Peter’s collection was Rees’ A Personal Narrative of the Siege of Lucknow. I sold it many years ago to an American air force officer and bought it back from his daughter two years ago.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. The subject of this blog is the Indian Mutiny which you can call The Sepoy War if you prefer or The War of Indian Independence if you must. So far as the last is concerned Vinayak Damodar Savarkar beat you by 111 years. Savarkar’s The Indian War of Independence by an Indian Nationalist was translated from Marathi and published in London in 1909. Specifically I’m going to write about the siege of Lucknow. But first I need to say something about the fall of the Mughal Empire and the rise of the East India Company.
The East India Company was a joint stock trading company founded in London in 1600 to trade in the East Indies. The spice trade was lucrative but was dominated by the Dutch who fought hard to retain their position. From 1611 onwards the Company’s interest turned to India. The Mughal Emperor Jahangir had nothing against trade with far-off Europe and wanted to break what looked like a Portuguese monopoly in his territories. Thus he received the Company’s embassies with enthusiasm offering them “free liberty without any restraint; and at what port wheresoever they shall arrive.” The Company set up a number of factories along the coast of which the most important were Madras (1639), Bombay (1668) and Calcutta (1690) which later became the capitals of the Company’s three Presidencies.
It’s important to keep this in perspective. The Mughal Empire had probably overtaken Ching China as the world’s largest economy. In 1689, after the conquest of Golconda, the last great Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb ruled an area of over 4,000,000 square kilometres with a population approaching 150,000,000. England with 130,000 square kilometres had a population of about 8,000,000. The Company had neither the means nor the will to fight the Mughals who, until the death of Aurangzeb in 1707, remained all powerful on land. As late as 1750 the Company employed fewer than 3,000 soldiers. In 1686, 1695 and 1702, when the Company and local Mughal officers came to blows, the Company backed down and offered compensation.
The sea was a different matter. The person pictured above in Daniel Defoe’s General History of the Pyrates is Captain John Every. (The authorship of the book is disputed – but the Captain Charles Johnson of the titlepage is certainly a pseudonym. In any case it is utterly unreliable as history.) Every’s piratical career began in 1694 when he was first mate of The Charles, a Royal Naval ship with 46 guns, which was part of a fleet under Don Arturo O’Byrne waiting in Corunna harbour for several months arrears of pay and for letters of marque from Madrid which would allow them to attack French ships in the West Indies. When the crew of The Charles got tired of waiting, they mutinied and elected Every captain. He renamed his ship The Fancy and in August 1695 reached the Bab el Mandeb (the aptly named Gates of Grief) at the entrance to The Red Sea. There he linked up with five other pirate captains and lay in wait for a Mughal treasure fleet returning from The Haj. The pirate attack was overwhelmingly successful taking over £200,000 sterling (multiply by at least a thousand) from the Ganj-i-Sawai alone. It was also extremely nasty, ending in multiple rape and torture. Facts are few and far between but there appears to have been a distribution of £1000 each to the surviving pirates at Bourbon in November 1795. A manhunt followed but Every escaped. Nobody knows what happened to him. Cynics have him retiring to England under an assumed name. Moralists have him dying in poverty. He lives on in fiction: Captain Jack Sparrow in the Pirates of the Caribbean series uses his flag. The Mughals should have been alarmed that their heaviest and best ships were overwhelmed by pirates. Instead they demanded and got compensation after threatening a renewed attack on Calcutta, currently pig in the middle between the main Moghul army and a rebellion led by Subah Singh.
There were also cracks in the mighty edifice of the Mughal Empire on land. As Stanley Wolpert puts it in A New History of India, “The conquest of the Deccan, to which, Aurangzeb devoted the last 26 years of his life, was in many ways a Pyrrhic victory, costing an estimated hundred thousand lives a year during its last decade of futile chess game warfare. The expense in gold and rupees can hardly be accurately estimated. Aurangzeb’s encampment was like a moving capital – a city of tents 30 miles in circumference, with some 250 bazaars, with a 1⁄2 million camp followers, 50,000 camels and 30,000 elephants, all of whom had to be fed, stripped the Deccan of any and all of its surplus grain and wealth….” So long as the Marathas refrained from occupying fixed positions, this was a classic case of an irresistible force entirely failing to meet a highly moveable object. Aurangzeb’s son, Bahadur Shah, inherited a bankrupt treasury, a demoralised army and an Empire many of whose non-Muslim territories were in open revolt against Aurangzeb’s imposition of the jizya military tax. Bahadur Shah compounded his problems by converting to the Shia branch of Islam. When he died in 1712 there was a dispued succession. The Empire fissioned. And very soon the Emperors were ruling little more than the area immediately adjacent to Delhi.
Watching the demoralised remnants of the Mughal armies tearing themselves to shreds, an intelligent observer might well have concluded that the Marathas would fill the vacuum. And indeed the Marathas did push steadily northwards, reaching the height of their power in 1762 when the powerless Mughal Emperor Shah Alam II invited them to Delhi to fight off an Afghan invasion. Then and now Afghanistan was a wild card. The Afghan Ahmed Shah defeated them at Panipat.
The sub-continent was once again a patchwork. Amongst the more powerful succesor states were Hyderabad and Mysore in the south. The richest was Bengal whose Nawabs combined the revrenue raising powers of the Mughal Diwans and the executive powers of the Mughal Nizams. There were frequent small wars between these successor states. The East India Company was involved in them willy nilly, needing to form and maintain local alliances in order to preserve its factories. During the course of these wars British officers discovered an interesting fact. Tiny British trained armies – tiny armies was all the East India Company had – could defeat very much larger local armies. Thus in 1751, Robert Clive seized Arcot with a force of about 200 Madras Europeans and 200 Madras Sepoys and held off Raja Sahib, who hoped to become Nawab of the Carnatic, with 2,000 native regular troops, 5,000 irregulars, 120 Europeans, and 300 cavalry.
Clive had his fair share of luck at Arcot. Raja Sahib’s son was killed while in command of the final assault. But his victory owed less to God and British pluck than it did to firepower. The Company’s British trained European and native troops were drilled without mercy until they could deliver volley after volley of musketry. There is no word to describe the relentless precision with which the Company’s troops went about the business of killing their fellow men. Ferocity is too emotive but will have to suffice. Western ferocity reached its climax in the First World War and went out of fashion after that. In India it was a new phenomenon. Apart from the Afghans and a few of the inhabitants of the North West Frontier, the inhabitants of the sub-continent lacked ferocity. It took Europeans to drill it into them. It wasn’t until the British met the Japanese in 1942 that they encountered large numbers of armed men as ferocious as themselves. The subsequent loss of the Empire wasn’t unconnected with this event.
Clive’s more famous victory at Plassey on 23rd June 1757 established the Company as the most significant military power in India. It was an altogether less creditable affair than Arcot owing much to bribery. The Nawab of Bengal, Siraj-ud-Daulah, had made the fatal error of antagonising the Jagat Seths. These Bengali bankers advanced to the Company the colossal sum of £4,000,000 to unseat Siraj-ud-Daulah and to replace him with a ruler more to their taste. The Company found and bribed their man in Mir Jafar whose name in Urdu is used today in much the same way we use the name Quisling. An excellent modern account is in William Dalrymple’s The Anarchy. Dalrymple, who lives in India, is a bit of a split personality: in Britain, he tends to emphasise the rapacity of the Company and its employees; in India, he tells his audiences about the utter lack of anything approaching patriotism amongst the peoples the Company engulfed. The Company’s control of Bengal and its immense riches was complete after the death of Mir Jafar in 1765 though the Nizamate wasn’t formally abolished until 1793.
Over the next hundred years the Company took under direct rule large tracts of India. Its army grew exponentially. In 1750 it had consisted of three thousand men all told, of which nearly half were European. In 1850 it consisted of two hundred and ninety thousand men, the large majority of them Indian. There was significant opposition to the extension of the Company’s rule from the rulers of Mysore, from the Marathas and lastly in the 1840s from the Sikhs whose army, the Khalsa, was equal in quality to that of the Company, though by that time vastly outnumbered.
The main reason the process took so long had to do with Company politics. Many members of the Board in London objected to the taking of territory, pointing out that the cost and difficulties of administration diverted effort from the more important business of making money. As early as 1770 the great Bengal famine, which resulted in millions of deaths, provided grist to their mill. Clive was lampooned as a vulture and hauled up before Parliament where he defended himself ably, remarking of the hundreds of thousands of pounds in prize money awarded to him personally, “I stand amazed by my own moderation.” He was exonerated. But the Company could do without publicity of this kind. Still more it could do without parliamentary scrutiny and interference such as the Regulating Act of 1773 which forced it to reform its practices.
So conquest proceeded by fits and starts with increasing interference from the home government. By 1857 more of the subcontinent was under direct rule than was independent. Just as the Company’s conservative directors had feared, its control of India was now more nominal than real. Policy was determined by the Governor General and the administrators of the three Presidencies, men whose appointments were overseen by the British government in London. Which brings me finally to the start of this blog. And in case you’ve forgotten what it’s about here is a picture to remind you.
L E Rees Ruutz was one European of many trapped in one garrison of many garrisons surrounded by infuriated and rebellious sepoys. Fortunately for Britain it was only the Company’s Bengal army that mutinied. And even in Bengal a few regiments remained loyal. Twelve out of a total of seventy four regiments of Bengal native infantry continued to exist in the post-Mutiny Indian army. Of the Bengal cavalry, only the Governor General’s Bodyguard continued to exist; eight other native cavalry regiments mutinied and two were disbanded. There were dangerously few Bengal Europeans, maybe 25,000 in all out of a total army strength of 160,000.
The immediate cause of the Mutiny was the introduction of a new sort of greased cartridge. Unlike the post-Mutiny Indian army which consisted largely of Punjabis, Sikhs and Gurkhas, the Bengal Army of 1857 was mainly Hindu. In late 1856, fanned by various discontented Indian notables, rumours spread that the new cartridges were greased with cow fat. The new 1853 Enfield rifles were loaded in the same way that muskets had been; sepoys were drilled to tear open the cartridges with their teeth, pour the explosive down the gun barrel and then wedge in the cartridge wrapping as wadding. It is impossible to overstate how offensive the idea of contact with cow fat was to observant Hindus. Forcing a Hindu to eat excrement would convey the distaste. On top of that you would have to add the insult to his religion and the damage to his caste. Officers protested that these were rumours, claiming that really the cartridges were greased with sow’s fat. The truth about the exact composition of the tallow (if it was known at all) was known only to Captain Boxer of the Royal Laboratory at Woolwich who’d been asked to test four different greases, one of which was selected in 1855 by the Company’s Board of Directors. The deliberations of the Board, who still had autonomy in trivial matters like this, were not recorded, but almost certainly they based their selection on cost. Thus for the sake of saving a few pounds, the Company risked losing India. Boards of Directors do this sort of thing all the time. So do governments.
What made the greased cartridges issues so potent was that many sepoys didn’t believe what their officers told them. They also believed it probable that the Company would insult them in this way. They were demoralised. The causes of this deep rooted disaffection are hard to analyse. Unlike the men of the British army, the sepoys were honoured in their own communities. Service with the Company was seen as something positive, a career rather than a job. The Company’s uniform was cut from the cloth of the three musketeers rather than that of Tommy Atkins. True, the sepoys had limited promotion prospects – all the officers were British – but in the old days a jemadar or a subedar had enjoyed a closer relationship with the officers of his regiment than any non-commissioned officer in the British Army did. All this was changing. A less tolerant breed of officer was coming out from Britain. Things Indian were held in less respect.
Aggressive Christian evangelisation also played a role. One of the first regiments to mutiny was the 34th Bengal Native Infantry at Barrackpore. The regiment was disbanded after its guard refused to disarm one of its sepoys, Mangal Pande who had run amok and shot at the European sergeant major and adjutant. In 1866 Major H M Conran wrote A Memoir of Colonel Wheler about the regiment’s commanding officer aiming to counter “the clamour about his preaching to the sepoys in 1857.” Conran makes a few good points such as that Wheler had only just taken command of the 34th and that his old regiment, the 31st, was one of those that remained loyal. He has difficulty, however, glossing over the revolt of the 31st at Ferozepore in 1844 and the complaints from other Europeans about his preaching. Wheler and Conran were not the only “sepoy apostles.”
In April and May there was further unrest at Agra and Ambala in particular. Then, on 10th May 1857, there was a large scale mutiny at Meerut after 85 men of the 3rd Bengal Light Cavalry were court martialled for refusing to accept the new cartridges. Meerut was a huge cantonment with over 2,000 British soldiers and slightly more Indian sepoys. The sepoys mutinied, rescued their imprisoned comrades and set off for Delhi. One of the rarest pamphlets I got from Peter Piercy was Colonel G Carmichael-Smyth’s Memorandum or a few words on the Mutiny printed by A David at Meerut in 1857 shortly after the event. Carmichael-Smyth was none other the commanding officer of the 3rd Bengal Light Cavalry and as such bears a fair share of the blame for the Mutiny. You’ll be surprised to hear that he’d seen it coming. “The chief cause was the petting and pampering of the Sepoys….I believe the abolition of Flogging to have been the next great cause….”
You’ll get a very different view of the causes of the Mutiny (which he calls the Great Rebellion) from Richard Gott. I’m including his book cover here partly because it’s about time I inserted a picture, partly because I wanted to include a non-copyright image of Tipu Sultan of Mysore’s ludicrous mechanical tiger and partly because Richard Gott’s views are simultaneously different from mine and very well worth reading.
Hardly any historians, Gott included, express surprise at the decision of the mainly Hindu mutineers to trek forty miles in order to offer their services to the Muslim Mughal Emperor. It suggests a guiding intelligence, possibly Shan Singh Gurjar, the local police chief. Despite conspiracy theories then and later, there was pretty little other evidence of strategy amongst the rebels. The Indian feudal nobility showed little interest in anything other than their own immediate short term interests. The Rani of Jhansi, female, so something of an icon nowadays, was prepared to support the British if only they would agree to accept her adopted son as her late husband’s successor. Nana Sahib, whose psychopathic behaviour in Cawnpore was only equalled by the British Frederick Cooper in Amritsar, was chiefly interested in forcing the Company to continue paying him the pension paid to his father. Landowners in Oudh took advantage of the disturbances to reoccupy the half of their estates they had been forced by the British to hand over to their peasant cultivators. These people weren’t leaders, they were parasites.
Until Meerut most mutineers simply went home. The decision by the Meerut mutineers to occupy Delhi and to restore the aged Mughal Emperor to authority was a mortal threat to British rule in India. It provided a rallying point for other mutineers and a figurehead. So long as Delhi remained in the hands of the mutineers there was a danger that major independent princes like Scindia of Gwalior might join them. The British in India reacted immediately to the threat. By the end of June a force of about four thousand men occupied a ridge outside the city. They faced about thirty thousand men inside the city. This extract from Hansard tells how Palmerston answered a parliamentary question from Disraeli on 13th July 1857.
And so on. It was already clear to everyone how the Mutiny should be suppressed. Most important was the recapture of Delhi. Once that was done it would be possible to relieve beleaguered garrisons at places like Lucknow and Cawnpore. Finally the remaining rebel forces could be mopped up.
The mutineers failed to shift the British from the ridge throughout July. On 14th August, after a famous march during which he hanged his force’s cooks without trial for having poisoned some soup with aconite, Brigadier John Nicholson arrived from Peshawar with about 2000 men and 32 siege guns. By September there were 9,000 men in place on the ridge, about a third of them British, the rest mainly Sikhs, Punjabis and Gurkhas. These men took Delhi which fell on 21st September. Nicholson was fatally wounded during the assault, an event that stopped people looking too closely at some of his earlier activities.
Back to Lucknow. Sir Henry Lawrence, High Commissioner of the newly acquired state of Oudh, was one of the first people to appreciate the significance of events in Meerut. He began fortifying his Residency at the end of May. He was fortunate in that one of the few British regiments in India, the 32nd Regiment of Foot, was garrisoned nearby. Three of the four native regiments at Lucknow marched for Delhi, but one, the 13th Bengal Native Infantry, remained loyal. During the course of June Faizabad and other important cities in Oudh fell into the hands of the rebels. European and other refugees flooded into The Residency which eventually contained 1,280 non-combatants.
On 30th June Lawrence himself led out a force of some 600 men intending to break up a rebel force gathering at Chinhut. It was both larger and better led than he’d been led to believe. The battle that followed was undoubtedly a significant sepoy victory. The rebels were led by Barket Ahmad, about whom I know nothing, supported by Ahmadullah Shah of Faizabad. Ahmadullah, as Thomas Seaton recognised in his autobiography Cadet to Colonel, was a great leader. If there had been more men like him on the rebel side – or rather if the sepoys had followed people like him rather than the odious Nana Sahib – the Mutiny might have had a different outcome. The Lighthouse of Rebellion, as he was known in Oudh, appealed to both Hindus and Muslims. He remained a problem for the British until he was killed in June 1858 by Jagganath Singh, Rajah of Pawayan.
The author of The Mutiny of the Bengal Army (written in two parts in 1857), writing anonymously as “one who has served under Sir Charles Napier”, is grudging about Chinhut. “The victory was ours, when at this critical moment our artillerymen of the Oudh battery overturned the guns into the ditches and abandoned them, thus totally exposing our flanks.” You’ll find a more balanced account in Sir John Kaye’s History of the Sepoy War. Kaye died after writing three volumes and his work was completed by G B Malleson in a further three volumes (plus an index volume by Pincott). I mention this because “one who has served under Sir Charles Napier” was none other than G B Malleson. Trust Kaye. Avoid Malleson.
After Chinhut Lawrence withdrew into his prepared defences. Lawrence, who had been wounded at Chinhut, was killed by a shell at the beginning of July. Colonel John Inglis of the 32nd took over the defence. Inglis believed the garrison was running short of supplies, Lawrence having died before divulging where he had hidden the stores he had gathered in May. He sent increasing desperate appeals for relief to Sir Henry Havelock who had recaptured Cawnpore on 16th July. During July and August Havelock made three attempts to relieve Lucknow, all of which failed. This sequence of failures persuaded the majority of Oudh’s taluqdar landowners to join the rebels. That put paid to any chance of mass popular support for the Mutiny though as I’ve already said the mutinous sepoys themselves were hardly representative of the oppressed classes.
On 25th September Havelock finally got to Lucknow with a force of about 2,000 men. (He’d been superseded by Major General Sir James Outram who characteristically allowed Havelock to continue in command while serving himself as a volunteer.) The force had suffered heavy casualties so Outram elected to stay in an extended defensive position. He was helped in this decision by the timely discovery of the stores Lawrence had hidden at the end of May. The second and final relief was by a force under Major General Hope Grant that broke through on 27th November. Hope Grant evacuated the city. It was retaken by the British in March 1858.
I want to end as I began with the photograph of Captain Sitwell dressed up in native clothes and sporting the pistol he lent to Thomas Henry Kavanagh VC. Some days before before the final relief, Hope Grant sent in a volunteer, Kunoujee Lal, to discover more about the mutineers’ defences and the safest line of approach to the defended position. Despite Lal’s objections – he felt that a blacked up Irishmen with red hair might compromise his safe return – Kavanagh persuaded Outram and his staff that only a European could interpret the plan of the city they had given Lal. His citation for the Victoria Cross, the first one ever to be awarded to a civilian, reads
Ruutz Rees, who had access to Inglis’ diary also, persuaded Kavanagh to write a narrative of his exploit. Here is part of it.
In 1860 Kavanagh wrote a 219 page book How I Won The Victoria Cross about the same event. I see from my catalogue entry for Peter Piercy’s collection that I glossed this with a reference from the Rev J R Baldwin’s Indian Gup in which he characterises Kavanagh as one of the most conceited men he’d ever met, who had VC embroidered on his bedroom slippers. Be that as it may. The one thing all three accounts have in common is that they largely omit to mention Kunoujee Lal who accomplished the same dangerous journey twice. There was no VC for him. It makes you wonder about the word ‘loyalty’. Thoughtful Indians did for the next ninety years.